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How Divorced Parents Can Get on the Same Page

Dear Christine,

I’m a divorced dad who remarried, with a son and a stepdaughter. When shelter-in-place hit and school was canceled, everything changed.

We all started working at home—or not working at all. Though we have successfully established a new custody schedule so that there is less back-and-forth between houses, we still have a lot of conflicts. We don’t agree about whether it’s okay to go outside, who can enter the other parents’ homes, or how the new schedule might affect child-support payments, among other things.

I’m concerned about routines and schooling and the emotional atmosphere in the other households. My stepdaughter’s parents don’t care much about school and are treating the closure like a vacation. My ex-wife is very anxious and never hesitates to express fear in front of my son, which I don’t think is very good for him.

How can we negotiate these differences? Can we all get on the same page, or is that just impossible?

Divorced & Confused

Dear Divorced & Confused,

In practice, this is absurdly difficult. Oh, how I hear you. Blended families like yours and mine—where kids go between households—can’t follow the mandate to shelter in a single place of residence. So, the safest thing to do is to operate as a single household with our children’s other homes.

Take the case of my neighbor, a single mother. She lives with her boyfriend half-time, and with her daughter half-time. Her boyfriend also has kids, who spend time at his ex-wife’s house as well as his. His ex-wife remarried, and she has three stepkids, who live part-time in yet another household. Unfortunately, anyone who has been exposed to the coronavirus in any of these households risks infecting everyone else.

Their situation—and yours, Divorced & Confused—is already complex, but made worse by the emotionally fraught relationships many divorced parents have with their exes and their new partners. You don’t agree on some key issues; how can you possibly operate as a unified family unit?

It’s hard, but we must find a way to do this hard thing. What we do here is a life-or-death issue, literally. It’s not a question of whether or not you should find a way to negotiate your differences, Divorced & Confused. You must, for the safety of all.

I can’t address your individual issues, but I can share some ideas for making shared custody possible during a global emergency.

1. Bring acceptance to this enormously tricky, emotionally complicated situation.

Conversations with ex-spouses are often difficult, especially when there is so much at stake. When we reduce conflict, we make things better for our kids, and we increase the odds that we’ll all miraculously arrive on “the same page.”

A lot of interpersonal conflicts come from resistance. One way we resist is by blaming, judging, and criticizing others. In this case, Divorced & Confused, it might be tempting to criticize your children’s other parents. Which will probably make them defensive and angry and, in turn, make them more resistant to your requests or helpful suggestions. So, scratch “well-intentioned critique” off the list of useful strategies.

We also often resist difficulty by denying and avoiding. Instead of raising our concerns with our ex-spouses and their new partners, we might suppress our worries and naively hope for the best. But there’s no time for avoidance in a health crisis like this one.

Criticizing and avoiding are tactics of resistance, and they won’t protect our families or communities from the dangers of COVID-19. Weirdly, the opposite of resistance—acceptance—will help us negotiate our differences.

We can reduce conflict with our children’s other parents by accepting them—and also by accepting the way they are responding to this crisis. We don’t have to like how they are responding. Nor do we have to resign ourselves to others’ future risky behavior. Acceptance is about meeting life where it is right now and moving forward from there. It allows us to see the reality of the situation in the present moment.

For example, the next time you interact with your ex-wife, you could say silently to yourself: “I accept that she is anxious and scared. And I accept that her emotions and actions are making all of us more anxious right now, too. That is the reality I’m working with.” When we accept a person (and their emotions), we let go of the resistance that creates stress and tension between us. Letting go allows us to soften, which opens the door to our compassion and our wisdom.

2. Keep your side of the street clean.

It’s always hard when other people don’t do what we want them to do. But right now, when so much feels dangerously out of control, it’s ridiculously hard.

The truth, though, is that we can never really control other people. “Control is an illusion,” a wise friend once wrote in an email. “Our only choice in each moment is: How much grace and beauty can we show up with? How well can we love?”

So. All we can control is how we show up in each moment, in each situation, in each conversation. When we feel angry or afraid, we’ll need to bring attention to our breath. We’ll need to resist speaking (or writing) until we can bring a little grace to the situation. Sometimes soothing ourselves is the only productive thing we can do in a given moment.

I hear you that you want your stepdaughter’s parents to take school seriously and that you are concerned about routines and exposure to your ex-wife’s anxiety. The most useful thing you can do in this situation is to be the best parent that you can be. Establish a solid structure for routines in your household. Talk to your stepdaughter about why education is important to you. Ask your son how he’s feeling and how he’s handling the big emotions of the adults around him.

Stay engaged and loving, even when your kids are with their other parents.

3. Have a little mercy on others and yourself.

Anne Lamott defines mercy as radical kindness bolstered by forgiveness. Mercy fundamentally changes how we communicate, even when we are interacting with someone mired in anger or fear or jealousy. You probably won’t be able to get rid of your negative thoughts about them, and you won’t be able to change them, but you can make an effort to be a loving person. Can you hold space for their suffering? Can you send a loving-kindness meditation their way?

Having mercy means that when others get short or nasty with us, we can be kind in return. We can recognize that they are feeling a lot of challenging emotions right now.

Forgiveness takes basic kindness to a whole new level. (And what we need right now is a whole new level.) I used to think I couldn’t forgive someone who’d hurt me or my children until they’d asked for forgiveness.

But to negotiate our differences in a crisis, we must forgive whether or not we’re asked for forgiveness, and whether or not the person is still acting in hurtful ways. We might need to forgive others at the end of every day—or, on bad days, every hour. Forgiveness is an ongoing practice, not a one-time deal.

We also need to have mercy on ourselves right now. If you get short or nasty with others, be kind to yourself. You’re feeling a lot of challenging emotions right now. You’re doing the best that you can. So are your co-parents. We’re all doing the best we can.


Coping with Disrupted Routines

Are you following along with our daily routine make-over? (In other words: Are you trying to keep everything from going to hell in a handbasket?)

Most of us are feeling like our routines have all been upended by the school closures and by working at home. But this could be an amazing opportunity to establish new happiness habits, and to extinguish the habits we have that detract from our wellbeing. This is an on-going series about how to do that (in less than 5 minutes a day). I’ll be updating this page (as well as Instagram and Facebook with videos) a few times a week.

Step 1: Make a list

Make a list of all the healthy behaviors that you want to hang on to or create in this “new normal.”
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Step 2: What Would Be Better Than Nothing?

Write down a “Better Than Nothing” routine for each of the habits you’d like to establish or keep. For example, designate a “better-than-nothing” exercise plan. This could be 10 squats, 5 push-ups, and a 30-second plank: something that only takes a minute or two.

Don’t worry: You’ll get to do more. Your “Better Than Nothing” routine isn’t your ultimate goal. But for now, what could you do that is super easy? What can you still do while stressed and overwhelmed? That you can do even when nothing is going as planned?

While you are looking at the list of the habits you’d like to get into or keep, perhaps add some that you’d never have thought of just one week ago. Like “Get Dressed” or “Shower.” ?

Download the Better Than Nothing Worksheet
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Step 3: Decide on a Structure For Your Day

It helps to decide when you’ll do something, and stick to that decision come hell or high water — for example, that you’ll do some exercise in the morning before breakfast, or a meditation when you wake up in the morning. That way, every morning (and afternoon, and evening) isn’t a negotiation between your best self and the one that is exhausted or overwhelmed.
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No Motivation? No Problem!

A lot of the motivating factors that got us out the door in the morning pre-Coronavirus have gone out the window. That’s okay! This is a great time to learn a way to get into a routine without relying on willpower or motivation to do so. “Motivation is unreliable,” writes BJ Fogg, the Stanford habit researcher.

“It’s unreliable with diets, exercise routines, creative projects, filing taxes, opening businesses, searching for jobs, planning conferences — self-improvement of all types.” Fogg now has a GREAT book out that you might like, it’s called TINY HABITS. I highly recommend it!
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Why a “Better Than Nothing” Habit?

Once a habit is hardwired into our brain, it is EASY. It’s on autopilot. We don’t have to WILL ourselves to do it. A “Better Than Nothing” habit is easy to repeat, again and again, until it’s on autopilot. You can do it even if you aren’t motivated, if you’re tired, if you have no time. And THAT’s the golden moment that we can start to expand.
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Can I Do More?

Are you feeling held back by your “Better Than Nothing” habit or routine? Are you itching to do more? Good news: You can! Under this ONE CONDITION. 🙂

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It’s so important for us to feel successful after we’ve enacted our “Better Than Nothing” habit. Why? Because we hate feeling like a failure. We humans avoid behaviors that make us feel lame.
So remember: You are building a habit here, a new routine that will contribute to your wellbeing. Feel good about that! Doing SOMETHING really is better than doing NOTHING.

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When it works best to reward yourself

Want a little treat? GREAT news, friends. There are actually THREE times when it is important to reward ourselves when we are trying to get into a new habit or maintain a routine. (As usual, I refer to BJ Fogg in this little video because I’m obsessed with his new book, Tiny Habits. Go buy the book! It’s great!)

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Why You Aren’t Doing that Thing You Meant to Do

There are 3 specific reasons we tend to struggle to re-establish our disrupted routines. Two of the reasons I’ve already addressed; the last reason I talk about in this little video. Post your questions in the comments! (Also, that’s my dog Buster at the end. He’s hungry and restless. Time for a walk!)

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How to Help Teens Shelter in Place

Teens are not made for isolation, which makes COVID-19 especially hard on them. Here’s how to help your teenager to see the bigger picture.

Parents everywhere are struggling to get their teenagers and college students to “shelter-in-place.” Teens are not made for isolation, which makes COVID-19 especially hard on them — and it makes them difficult to control.

One of my friends is coming unglued. “My kids keep skating around rules and being with friends every time I close my office door to work.” She has two college students home and a big corporate job she’s got to keep doing. She’s trying to care for elderly in-laws, and her daughter needs medication that she’s having trouble securing. “I feel like I should be able to control them. I’m trying. But my anxiety is so heavy. I’m emotionally exhausted.”

Social isolation is hard for humans of all ages. But because teenagers and young adults are more attuned to social status than the rest of us, it is even more profoundly distressing for them. 

In addition, their hard-wired attunement to social status makes them super touchy about whether or not they are being treated like children. This means that they feel infantilized when ordered to shelter-in-place.

What can we do to encourage teens to comply with social-distancing measures? 

We need to work with their existing motivations. Teens are unlikely to be persuaded by (brilliant! logical! passionate!) arguments that conflict with their innate, developmental motives.

Let’s start with their high motivation to get out from under our control.

We can work with this existing motivation by treating them like competent young adults rather than little kids. For example, we can:

  • Expect them to contribute to our household in meaningful ways. They can help with meal prep and household cleaning. Our kids assist with the cleaning by vacuuming and wiping down the counters. Keeping conflict low amid tight quarters is a meaningful contribution. Planning fun activities for the family to do together might be the most essential contribution of all!
  • Allowing them to manage themselves, their own schoolwork, and their other responsibilities without nagging or cajoling. This does not mean that we won’t be engaged with them. It does mean that we give them space to operate freely within the limits we agree to as a family.
  • Asking them to help us with our work to the extent that they can. “My kids keep interrupting me on Zoom calls for stupid shit,” a friend texted me, frustrated to the brink. Even older teens (and spouses!) need us to be clear about how their constant interruptions affect us. Explain rather than accuse: “I feel embarrassed and stressed when I’m on a video call, and you keep poking your head in to ask questions,” rather than “It is inconsiderate and selfish of you to keep interrupting my meetings.”
  • Using non-controlling, non-directive language. For example, ask questions instead of telling them what to do. My all-time favorite question is “What’s your plan?” As in: “What’s your plan for getting some exercise today?” This makes it clear that they are still in control of their own behavior, and it helps put them in touch with their own motivations and intentions.
  • Acknowledge that all of this is so hard. Many students coming home from school are experiencing significant losses right now. Their feelings of grief, anxiety, stress, and isolation are hard to cope with. And also: One of the great lessons of adulthood is that they can do hard things.

Tap Into their High Attunement to the Social World

We can also tap into their high attunement to the social world by emphasizing how their lives have a purpose, meaning, and impact on other people. Here are some talking points:

  • You are not a passive actor here, along for the ride. Your actions are directly affecting the course of this crisis. We are wondering: What do you genuinely care most about in this crisis?
  • Who can you help, and who are you concerned that you might harm? How can you use your skills to help the world right now?
  • Your grandchildren are going to ask you about the role you played during this pandemic. What will you tell them?

Above all, help them see that this situation is not about what they want or expect from life. It’s about what life is expecting from them right now. We expect them to rise to the occasion; to be a part of the solution, not a part of the problem.

There are incredible, urgent life lessons here. We are teaching our kids both directly and through our own example how to take responsibility—not just for ourselves and our immediate family, but for our local and global community, as well.

We are all being called to demonstrate our character and commitment to others and to the greater good. Our young people are being called, too. Let’s allow them to step up.

How Self-Quarantine Can Strengthen Your Family

Here are three ways to cope while sheltering in place.

As our kids figure out how to learn online, we can retool in our families, too. Here are three practical ways families can cope—and even thrive—despite school closures, event cancellations, and a whole lot more time at home with the kids.

1. Create some structure around work and school at home.

I’m supposedly working as I write these words, but my high schooler just popped in to see if I knew where his phone charger is (nope). Before that, one of my daughters came in to get the dog and some stamps. I love seeing my kids and having them home, but each interruption breaks my focus. It takes ages for me to get started again; it’s so much easier to check my email (or the status of the coronavirus) than to do my actual work.

Clearly we need to get set up a little better now, rather than waiting until we know how long this is going to last (it could be a while) or until we are all at our wits’ end (possibly tomorrow). Constant interruptions are a recipe for misery. Not only do they hinder our productivity, but they increase our stress and tension levels in measurable ways.

We can minimize interruptions by carving out specific times and places for each of us to do our work. Our kids need individual work-at-home plans to finish out their semesters. If your kids need supervision and you also need to work from home, find partners (perhaps neighbors if you don’t have a coparent) to help you, and set up shifts so that you are either in charge of the kids or working somewhere that minimizes interruptions—but not trying to do both things at the same time.

2. Connect with your clan.

Social distancing is painful. We humans need social connections to feel safe. Those of us who live in families have a built-in way to counter the feelings of isolation that social distancing can cause. We can hug our kids and tickle their backs. We can share our meals together—all of them. We can relax and read and watch our shows on the same couch in the same room.

This sort of old-fashioned family time isn’t the norm. Before the pandemic, it was more natural to eat lunch alone in front of the computer. Kids today are more likely to watch videos on their devices alone than they are to join the family for an episode of TV. But we’ll do well to counter the distancing we’re experiencing from our broader school and work communities by deepening our connections to one another at home. Let’s not be alone together; let’s be together when we’re together.

3. Embrace not having somewhere else to be. 

Although a new form of activity has taken over our lives, something that was previously unimaginable for me has happened: Our family literally has no plans that take place outside of our home. 

This has been unsettling. We Americans feel important rushing from one commitment to the next. Busyness makes us feel significant. 

But if we don’t have time to get enough sleep (or exercise, or cook healthy meals) now, when will we? Let’s remember that we don’t have to be more productive during this anxious time. This is a time to take good care of ourselves.

Taking care of ourselves can feel indulgent at a time when so many people are sick and when our healthcare workers and so many others are sacrificing so much. But one of the best things that we can do for others is to take care of ourselves. We can better ward off illness when we are mentally and physically healthy, and this puts us in a much better position to help others.

These are strange, uncertain times. But we’ll do well to remember that “life is never made unbearable by circumstances,” as Viktor Frankl wisely wrote, “but only by lack of meaning and purpose.” This may be the longest “summer” ever—kids may be home for five months!—but let’s not forget to find the meaning behind it.

All of this is about helping others: We are trying to slow the spread of a lethal and virulent disease, trying to keep our hospitals from becoming overwhelmed, to keep our doctors from having to make decisions about who lives and who dies. We can welcome school closures, and curb complaining about inconveniences.

Stay home, friends. Stay safe. Help others.

Do you need more support?

If you and/or your family are struggling right now, I’ve expanded my coaching practice so that I can support more people. Learn more here.⁠